A poem dedicated to Dominion Resources
By Michael M. Barrick
Note: This poem is dedicated to Dominion Resources. Originally published in January 2015, I am re-publishing it today in light of recent news stories about Dominion, including this one we published yesterday and this one.
Dominion they call themselves.
And they believe it.
They have deceived themselves,
intoxicated by false power.
They are a god – of greed.
Though their foundation is illusory,
disregarding all in life that is of true value,
it sustains them for they esteem only profit.
Their minions are experts in the law.
Like Sanhedrin, they use the letter
to crush the spirit.
What is theirs is not enough;
what is yours is in their sights.
What is yours is negotiable –
on their terms.
What is sacred to you
The old home place;
the sunrise over the ridge;
the moon hanging in the
deep blues of night.
The stars which pre-date
their temporal, mortal
they don’t even glimpse.
The only green they see
is on currency.
The ancient rocks,
which for generations
have served as sentinels,
as comforting reminders of
a shared heritage,
they plow away
with their machines.
A walk in the woods,
which for you is a moment
of holiness – an opportunity
to pass along wisdom
to your grandchildren –
is to them merely a survey.
The narrow, crooked paths
made through time by
will not be enjoyed by
They shall cross them
with a straight, 42-inch
cylinder of pipe,
indifferent to the heritage
they disrupt and destroy.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2014 – 2017
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Longtime Caldwell resident that benefited from the Council as a student is named Executive Director
LENOIR, N.C. – The Caldwell Arts Council (CAC) is pleased to announce that Lindsay Barrick will become its sixth Executive Director, effective April 29. During her time as the CAC Social Media Manager, Barrick has overseen the creation and dissemination of content on various social networking platforms. She has been a long-time advocate and supporter of the CAC, other arts venues, and many individual artists, musicians, writers, and thespians.
She currently serves as Director of Programs and New Media for St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Hickory as well as studio manager and printmaking instructor at the Hickory Museum of Art. A native of West Virginia, she spent most of her formative years in Caldwell County. Barrick is passionate about the arts and the people of Appalachia.
She said, “I am honored and thrilled to serve an organization I have loved since I was a young girl. It will be my great joy to continue the important work of Caldwell Arts Council: introducing school children to live theatre through our Artists in Schools program; preserving traditional Appalachian music through JAM; encouraging participation in poetry and acting through our annual competitions; supporting non-profits and individual artists in their vital efforts through grants; and presenting opportunities for artists and musicians to share in the thrill of exhibiting their craft.”
Barrick continued, “I also look forward to developing new ways to connect our community members and the arts. I have tremendous respect for former Executive Director Lee Carol Giduz and current Executive Director Adrienne Roellgen. I know much can be learned from their leadership.” She also praised the current staff, volunteers and board, adding, “Launi, Cathy, Bob, our dedicated volunteers, generous board members, and I already work so well together. I’m excited about the possibilities going forward.”
Barrick said, “Adrienne will continue to serve as Executive Director through April 28. We appreciate her enduring enthusiasm and love for Caldwell Arts Council. We wish her and her family the very best as they begin an exciting new chapter in Los Angeles.”
© The Lenoir Voice, 2017.
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Inspiring program is preserving music, history and communities of Appalachia
By Michael M. Barrick
LENOIR, N.C. – The Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program says on its website “We’re building community one tune at a time.”
That’s a fact, as I saw it on display last night here at the 19th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase. There, among many other great musicians, we saw and heard the group Strictly Strings, which was born out of the Boone, N.C. JAM affiliate. (Learn more here: Strictly Strings Carrying on the Old-Time Tradition).
Below each photo are statements from JAM’s website. We hope these photos and insights will motivate you to click on the links above and learn more about this vital educational music program that is preserving the history, traditions and communities of Appalachia. If you have a chance to see Strictly Strings or any JAM shows of the roughly 40 affiliates in southern Appalachia, do it! You’ll see and hear history come alive.
We envision a world in which all children have the opportunity to experience community through the joy of participating in traditional mountain music together.”
Our mission is to provide communities the tools and support they need to teach children to play and dance to traditional old time and bluegrass music.”
We believe that children who are actively engaged in traditional mountain music are more connected and better prepared to strengthen their communities for future generations.”
Read about Caldwell, N.C. JAM here.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017
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Hundreds of Nonprofit Organizations Join to Demand Reform of ‘Rogue Agency’
WASHINGTON – More than 180 organizations representing communities across America, including West Virginia, called on leaders in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold congressional hearings into the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) extensive history of bias and abuse. The groups are also requesting reform of the Natural Gas Act, which the groups say, gives too much power to FERC and too little to state and local officials.
“The time has now come for Congress to investigate how FERC is using its authority and to recognize that major changes are in fact necessary in order to protect people, including future generations, from the ramifications of FERC’s misuse of its power and implementation of the Natural Gas Act,” says Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and a primary organizer of the effort.
“The Greenbrier River Watershed has two pipelines proposed: Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley, yet FERC refused to do a Programmatic EIS to look at the need for two pipelines,” says Leslee McCarty, coordinator of the Greenbrier River Watershed Association. “We hope Congress, instead of speeding up approvals for these projects, will force FERC to look closely at need, especially in light of global climate change.”
“The FERC represents the epitome of what the world has come to recognize as a rogue regime: unbridled power over citizens and unquestionable allegiance to and cooperation with unethical, socially unjust and environmentally dismissive corporations,” says Monroe County, WV resident Laurie Ardison, co-chair of POWHR (Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights).” For the citizens of this country to be victims of the FERC is unconscionable. Congress must reign in this agency which left unchecked, will continue to foster incalculable harms as the fossil fuel industry develops beyond need.”
McCarty adds, “Fracked gas may prove to be even more of a dirty fuel than coal. Yet in the US, and especially in West Virginia, we are asked to embrace this dirty business as our savior. It is a testimony to slick public relations and strategic campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies, and keeps us on a dangerous path to certain disastrous climate change and boom and bust economic development. This is the time for West Virginia to look to revitalize our energy portfolio and keep sustainable jobs, not continue to be led down the painful road we have traveled in the past.”
The letter to Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairwoman Lisa Murkoski (R-AK), Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA), signed by 182 community organizations representing communities in 35 states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia as well as the District of Columbia, argues that FERC’s review and approval process for jurisdictional pipeline projects is infected by bias; and that it is resulting in uncontrolled and irresponsible proliferation of unneeded natural gas pipelines. Finally, the letter charges the agency with misusing provisions in the law to strip people and states of their legal rights, to prevent fair public participation in the pipeline review process, and to improperly use the power of eminent domain to take private property and public lands in a way that inflicts unforgivable harm to rights, jobs, and communities.
The letter details how FERC has implemented the Natural Gas Act in ways that deliberately undermine public input. FERC has prevented communities from challenging projects before the exercise of eminent domain and pipeline construction, made decisions to benefit its Commissioners, and used conflicted consultants to handle much of the review process.
In addition to calling for hearings into FERC and the Natural Gas Act, the letter opposes any further advancement of language in the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 meant to shorten critical pipeline review periods. Signers of the letter argue that the proposed law should be held in abeyance until after the hearings, where Congress will learn “how people’s rights, state’s rights, and the environment are already being abused under the implementation of the Natural Gas Act and so will be further harmed by passage of provisions proposed in the new law.”
Upon Congressional review, DRN and fellow parties demand the reforms necessary to address FERC’s extensive abuse of power, which requires revising the Natural Gas Act to prevent the misuse and exploitation that has been rampant. Additionally, the organizations seek affirmative action to remedy FERC’s problematic funding structure.
“FERC is corrupt and needs to be reformed,” says Paul L Gierosky, cofounder, Coalition to Reroute Nexus. “The evidence is overwhelming and clear as is set forth in the request for Congressional Hearings. It is time for Congress to hold FERC accountable.”
“The number of frack gas pipelines is exploding and the feds are not only not applying appropriate oversight, but are in fact also enabling the trampling of people’s property rights, public health standards, and environmental protection,” says David Pringle, NJ Campaign Director, Clean Water Action. “This letter is a clarion call to action for Congress to rein in this modern day Wild West that if left unchecked will lead to even worse abuses and explosions.”
A pdf of the letter is available here:
Libertarian Candidate Slams Organizations for Limiting W.Va. Gubernatorial Debate to Two ‘Major’ Parties
Secretary of State candidate John Buckley accuses AARP, W. Va. Press Association, and W. Va. Public Broadcasting of working against the public interest
MATHIAS, W.Va. – John Buckley, the Libertarian Party candidate for West Virginia Secretary of State, today castigated the three proposed hosts of what would be an October “closed-to-the-competition” publicly broadcast debate limited to just the Republican and Democratic candidates for Governor. “Shame on the media and so-called ‘public’ broadcasting,” declared Buckley, “for once again turning their back on the public’s demonstrated interest in considering other candidates.” Libertarian Party candidate for Governor, David Moran, was formally nominated at the party’s May 7 convention, which generated front-page coverage in the Charleston Gazette-Mail and in West Virginia’s preeminent weekly business publication, The State Journal.
The three proposed hosts of the limited-participation debate – the West Virginia Press Association, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and AARP West Virginia – held a similar GOP/Democrat restricted debate in 2014 for United States Senate, from which three other candidates, including Buckley for the Libertarian Party, were excluded.
“West Virginia Public Broadcasting should be condemned for using the public’s tax dollars to prop up the political power of Republicans and Democrats,” said Buckley. “The West Virginia Press Association is turning its back on the public interest in fair media coverage of all the candidates who have qualified for the ballot,” he added. “And it’s no wonder that AARP, one of the major lobbies for more government subsidies, bailouts, and status quo politics, seeks to trade political favors in return for continued insider access to the halls of power.” The Libertarian Party opposes government favoritism and the continued growth of state spending and taxes. “Perhaps the AARP is afraid the public might like what Libertarians have to say about smaller government,” Buckley suggested.
“If the topsy-turvy events of the current presidential election process have proved anything, it is that voters are absolutely sick to death of politics as usual,” Buckley observed. “This exclusive debate is nothing better than the three sponsors responding ‘drop dead’ to the public’s demand for clean, open elections.”
Buckley vowed, “If elected Secretary of State, I will use that office as a bully pulpit in favor of fair, transparent elections, including in particular the advocacy of inclusive debates among candidates for public office.”
The Libertarian Party is West Virginia’s third-largest political party and is fielding candidates for all six of the statewide offices up for election this year. In addition to Moran, of Preston County, for Governor and Buckley, of Hardy County, for Secretary of State, the Libertarian Party of West Virginia (LPWV) is running Karl Kolenich, Upshur County, for Attorney General; Brent Ricketts, Jefferson County, for Auditor; Michael Young, Putnam County, for Treasurer; and Buddy Guthrie, Monongalia County, for Commissioner of Agriculture. In addition, the LPWV has nominated Zane Lawhorn of Mercer County for United States House of Representatives in the Third Congressional District and several candidates for House of Delegates, State Senate, and local office.
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West Virginia Department of Environment Protection needs to hear more voices
By John W. Cobb, Jr.
IRELAND, W.Va. – With 11 counties in West Virginia projected to be affected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) route should it receive approval, voices from one end of the state to the other must be heard. The West Virginia Department of Environment Protection (WVDEP) needs to hear from citizens while there is still time. The potential impacts to water supplies (aquifers), streams, wetlands and rivers is significant; therefore citizens need to write the WVDEP to request public hearings in the affected counties.
So far, such requests are working.
The WVDEP Division of Water and Waste Management (DWWM) will be extending the public comment period on the State 401 Water Quality Certification for the proposed MVP project until further notice. It takes only a few minutes to send them a letter or email requesting a public hearing in your county so you can learn and get answers to your concerns.
Originally, the public comment period, which is required under state regulation 47CSR5A, would have ended next week, but because of widespread public interest in the proposed project, DWWM will be scheduling public hearings to discuss certification of the proposed project. Information about the dates and locations of those hearings will be made public as soon as plans are finalized.
The WVDEP says they will likely prioritize holding public hearings based on the counties generating the most comments. For now, those are from Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers counties. We need more folks along the MVP Route to respond now. We need to help get the word out to folks further up along the proposed route, including Wetzel, Doddridge, Harrison, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, and Fayette counties. Every citizen along the route needs reasonable access to public hearings. By writing the WVDEP, it will increase the chance that no citizen will be left out.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a $3.5 billion project, developed by EQT Corp., and it involves a 42-inch-diameter pipeline that would run 301 miles south from the Equitrans L.P. transmission system near the MarkWest Energy Mobley Complex in Wetzel County to a Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Co. compressor station in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. This project is one of multiple pipeline projects currently under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) one of the other projects is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that will run somewhat parallel and north of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
When issuing certification, DWWM’s 401 Certification Program may consider the proposed activity’s impact on water resources, fish and wildlife, recreation, critical habitats, wetlands and other natural resources. In its 401 certification application, EQT anticipates that the MVP project will have temporary impacts to approximately 49,892 linear feet of streams and 18.9 acres of wetlands and permanent impacts to approximately 3,125 linear feet of streams and 10 acres of wetlands within the Mountain State.
Comments and information relating to the certification should be emailed to DEP.firstname.lastname@example.org, with “MVP 401 Certification” in the subject line or mailed to:
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Water and Waste Management
401 Certification Program
601 57th Street SE
Charleston, WV 25304
Responding now with a request for a public hearing in your county will give you and your neighbors a chance to express your concerns to the West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection.
(C) John W. Cobb, Jr., 2016. Mr. Cobb writes from his home in Ireland, W.Va.
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Note: The original version of this article listed 12 counties. The correct number is 11. We regret the error.
Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition petitioned state official to make public information about pipeline regulatory reviews
MONTEREY, Va. – On May 5, 2016, the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC) sent a Petition for Writ of Mandamus and Injunctive Relief to Angela Navarro, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources, and David Paylor, Director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to compel the state to provide information about regulatory reviews of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) proposals. The Petition, prepared for filing in the Virginia Circuit Court in Richmond, describes how state officials have violated duties under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The next day, Friday, May 6th, Deputy Secretary Navarro and Director Paylor responded through their counsel, Assistant Attorney General, David Grandis, indicating that they will provide the requested documents early this week.
Before the state indicated it would provide the documents, Rick Webb, DPMC Coordinator, said, “We are disappointed that Virginia’s environmental officials have failed to live up to a law designed to give Virginian’s open access to their own government. Nearly three weeks ago, we asked for public records that would help us and other citizens understand what the State intends to do to protect citizens and the environment from damages the pipelines could cause.” He continued, “Officials are supposed to respond to such information requests within five business days but we received no reply for nearly three weeks. Finally yesterday (May 4) they acknowledged they’d received our letter but did not offer to provide the information we’ve requested.”
The Virginia DEQ has a duty, under the federal Clean Water Act and Virginia Water Protection laws, to review the gas pipeline proposals and ensure that no project goes forward unless all water quality standards will be met, argued Webb. However, as DPMC’s April 14 letter recounts, Virginia DEQ seems to be willing to cover both ACP and MVP under “general permits,” essentially rubber stamping the projects under blanket approvals issued in 2012 and intended only for small projects that pose little risk to waters, Webb argued. DPMC sought public records through the April request to clarify the state’s positions and to question whether the DEQ is able to justify its approach.
The Petition can be accessed here. The FOIA request was included in an April 14th letter, which can be accessed here. The letter objected to the state’s apparent intention to certify the ACP and MVP under general permits issued in 2012. The FOIA request sought information related to the following questions concerning both the ACP and MVP:
1) Has DEQ deemed the Joint Application and/or other information submitted for the projects to be complete and accurate such that DEQ is able to make a formal finding as to the projects’ eligibility for coverage under Virginia’s blanket 401 water quality certification?
2) Has the Corps of Engineers indicated to DEQ that the projects meet the Corps’ requirements for coverage under the general Nationwide Permit 12?
3) Has DEQ made a tentative or final finding that the projects comply with the conditions of the blanket 401 certification for Nationwide Permit 12?
4) Has DEQ requested and/or received additional information from the applicants, in addition to that contained in the Joint Applications, to reveal proposed construction and detailed pollution control methods and analyze possible water quality impacts?
According to DPMC, this is the second time this year that Virginia officials have violated the Freedom of Information Act after DPMC requested records on the gas pipelines. In an earlier case, Carlos Hopkins, Counsel to Governor McAuliffe, failed to provide records within the required period. On March 4, 2016, David Sligh of DPMC wrote Hopkins: “I believe the Governor’s Office is now in violation of the time requirement for response to FOIA requests, under 37 § 2.2-3704. You informed me that the check sent on behalf of DPMC was received at your office on February 15 or 16. Therefore, the records or an appropriate response should have been sent no later than Feb. 23.” Less than two hours after receiving Sligh’s note, Mr. Hopkins provided the documents but failed to explain the failure to abide by the law.
“This legal action is about much more than an arbitrary deadline or a technicality,” Rick Webb stated: “It’s about the McAuliffe administration’s respect for the rights of citizens trying to play their proper roles and protect their communities and natural resources. The law says a failure to properly respond to a FOIA request is the same as refusing the request outright. We won’t accept a refusal of our rights.”
New Layers Added to DPMC ACP map, including blast radius and evacuation zones
According to DPMC, additional map layers have been added to the ACP-Environmental Mapping System. Features include:
1) Estimated blast radius and evacuation zone for the proposed ACP.
2) Updated ACP construction corridor and access roads for the 10/30/15 and 4/15/16 submissions to FERC.
3) Direct and core forest loss associated with the proposed ACP construction corridor and access roads.
4) Virginia property parcels.
5) Stream crossings. (Information on crossing methods and environmental factors will be added).
The current version of the ACP-Environmental Mapping system can be accessed via the DPMC website, www.pipelineupdate.org. The link is in the right-hand sidebar.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016.
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The Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment
By Michael J. Iafrate
WHEELING, W.Va. – During this presidential campaign, a light is being shined on the way corporate and other wealthy donors influence the political process. We have woken up to the fact that money corrupts politics. During this month of the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster, it is important, too, to see the corrupting influence of coal money on our churches.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have been admirably engaged in the work of charity in the state of West Virginia. Yet, they have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.
For example, the takeaway from the Bishop’s pastoral letter on mine safety, issued after Upper Big Branch, was that the tragedy “raises concerns.” But the coal industry itself says that such accidents “raise concerns.” The death of so many human beings at the hands of a systemically negligent industry should do more than “raise concerns.”
Whether faced with the coal industry’s repeated attempts to cheat retired miners out of their pensions and health care packages or the ongoing devastating stories from communities affected by mountaintop removal mining, the Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment. Even after the release of Pope Francis’ powerful ecological encyclical Laudato Si’, Bransfield downplayed its message for West Virginia, promoting instead the myth of “clean coal.” And the Diocese has yet to make any comments about the dangers of fracking which increasingly affects people in West Virginia. Why is this?
People of faith in Appalachia often suspect that dirty money from the fossil fuel industries compromises the church’s prophetic voice. Pope Francis has spoken about the corrupting influence of “dirty money,” saying, “I think of some benefactors of the Church, who come with an offer for the Church and their offer is the fruit of the blood of people who have been exploited, enslaved with work which was under-payed. I will tell these people to please take back their cheques. The People of God don’t need their dirty money but hearts that are open to the mercy of God.”
We must ask about the relevance of Francis’ words for the church in West Virginia, as it in fact has financial ties to the coal industry. Diocesan officials have stated publicly that the church draws money from unspecified “fossil fuel investments,” but will not disclose any further details about these investments or about its endowment in general, and one of the four lay members of Bransfield’s finance council is a former lobbyist for the National Coal Association. In 2008, according to multiple sources, Bransfield gave the green light to Sacred Heart Parish School in Williamson, W.Va. to accept charitable gifts from former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, including the funding of a brand-new gymnasium for the school, brand new sports equipment, and full scholarships for 12 students for their six-year education.
One would think that after Upper Big Branch the church might be more reluctant to accept any more dirty money from coal barons. Yet, Catholic Charities of West Virginia opened a new facility in Greenbrier County in 2013 funded by a donation from mine owner Jim Justice, whose mines have been cited for hundreds of labor, safety, and environmental violations and for failure to pay various debts and taxes.
People like Justice and Blankenship give monetary gifts to the church to improve their community standing. For precisely this reason, Blankenship’s charitable activity was cited in over one hundred letters to U.S. District Judge Irene Berger asking for more leniency in the lead-up to his sentencing.
Despite its continued economic decline, Big Coal wants a return on their investment in the church. What kind of return are they getting? A diocesan spokesperson told me that the church opposes the abuses of the fossil fuel industries, such as mountaintop removal and the abuse of workers, but that it does so “quietly” because “banging a drum” about it would “not be prudent.” But what is the value of opposition that is not made public?
Such responses suggest that the Diocese is very concerned about how the church’s social justice teachings would be received by powerful industries in West Virginia if we were to preach them strongly and in public. When church leaders consistently accept money from coal barons, the “prudent” approach muzzles any social justice teaching the church might offer in defense of workers or of Earth’s ecological integrity.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have … have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.”– Michael J. Iafrate
Many West Virginia Catholics would like to see their leaders boldly choose the side of justice and to “let justice speak loudly,” as the Appalachian Catholic bishops put it in their 1975 pastoral letter “This Land is Home to Me.” We do not expect the church to call for an immediate end of the coal industry, even as we transition to more diverse, life-giving economies. But we insist that the church must do better at denouncing—without ambiguity—this industry’s abuses.
Specifically, is it too much to wish that Bransfield condemn mountaintop removal and fracking and to apologize for promoting the lie of clean coal? Shouldn’t he promote clearly the church’s teaching on workers’ rights and oppose the continued attack on those rights that we saw in West Virginia’s recent legislative session, especially in the passing of the Right to Work bill? (The brief, vague diocesan statement issued on the legislation will not do). Might we expect him to join so many others explicitly calling for tougher penalties for those who violate mining regulations?
To do any of this, however, the church must be free of the corrupting influence of the coal industry’s financial gifts. On this anniversary of Upper Big Branch, the Diocese should exercise financial transparency and make a clear commitment to refuse the financial benefits of a destructive, death-dealing industry. As Pope Francis has said, we don’t need their dirty money.
[This is a shorter, edited version of a longer piece first published at Religion Dispatches, April 14, 2016.]
© Michael J. Iafrate, 2016.
Michael J. Iafrate writes from Wheeling, W.Va. He is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of St. Michael’s College (Toronto) and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.
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Age-old crop could help expand economic diversity in Appalachia
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the April/May 2016 edition of Appalachian Voices
By Michael M. Barrick
As the result of a new law that takes effect on July 1, Virginia farmers will soon be able to grow hemp for industrial purposes — albeit with restrictions.
Even though the law is new, the crop is not. Industrial hemp has been grown around the world for centuries, offering thousands of uses, none of which involve “getting high.”
In fact, according to Chase Milner, the Shenandoah Valley regional director for the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, “Industrial hemp has been grown by human civilization for at least 12,000 years for fiber, food, and now recently bio-fuels.”
He noted that a 1619 Virginia law required farmers to grow hemp, a critical component of sailcloth, textiles and rope, and three of the Founding Fathers grew hemp on their Virginia estates. Ben Franklin owned a mill that made paper from the plant, and the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper.
Still, Virginia’s new law has its limitations, Milner explained. “Currently, under the federal Agricultural Act of 2014, the only lawful purpose for which industrial hemp may be grown is for research conducted by an institute of higher education or a state department of agriculture.”
Before industrial hemp gains widespread acceptance, policy makers need to understand the difference between the crop and marijuana. The most significant difference is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the chemical that gives marijuana users their “buzz.” Industrial hemp contains very low levels of THC — about 0.3 percent — while marijuana can contain up to 20 percent.
According to Mike Manypenny, a former three-term member of the West Virginia House of Delegates who championed industrial hemp while serving in the legislature, the environment would benefit from fully legalized industrial hemp. A farmer, he has been granted a provisional license to grow the crop this year for research.
“Here in West Virginia and across Appalachia, we are inundated with environmental damage caused by the extraction industries. Coal mining has left unimaginable environmental damage to our soils, water and air across our once pristine landscapes,” Manypenny wrote in an email. “We can use industrial hemp to help remediate those soils through bio-remediation, where the plant takes up the metals and toxins left behind from the mining and processing of coal or other industrial practices. This in turn can reduce the amounts of metals and toxins leaching into our streams, rivers and into our aquifers.” However, researchers acknowledge that since information regarding the effects of toxins on industrial hemp is incomplete, any such use of the plant would require that it be disposed of in a special manner, likely consistent with any disposal requirements of the toxin being absorbed by the plant.
Ryan Huish, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, agreed that the crop can be environmentally friendly. “Hemp requires little to no chemical input to grow well, thus avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers,” he stated. “It also has the potential of reducing the need to harvest trees for pulp and building materials, thus preserving more of our forests.”
Milner described how hemp also sequesters carbon in a way that enhances soil quality while reducing levels of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The crop is also a nutritious food source. “Hempseed provide a remarkable plant based protein diet for human, livestock, and wildlife consumption,” he added.
Huish observed, “the scientific name itself includes the Latin ‘sativa,’ meaning, ‘cultivated,’ emphasizing its eminence as a domestic crop.” As West Virginia adjusts to having less employment from the shrinking coal industry, Milner and Manypenny both suggest that industrial hemp could serve as an economic engine to help fill the gap. “Appalachia offers one of the most pristine environments for growing industrial hemp,” Manypenny said.
Milner stated, “The Hemp Industries Association has reviewed sales of clothing, auto parts, building materials and various other products derived by foreign-grown hemp, and estimates the total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. in 2014 to be at least $620 million.”
According to Milner, the full benefits of industrial hemp won’t be realized until federal law is changed. “Congress remains the industry’s greatest hurdle, as hemp still is defined as marijuana via the Controlled Substances Act,” he wrote.
Yet, he remains hopeful. “For many including me, hemp brings hope,” Milner shared. “Hope for a planet that needs healing, hope for a more sustainable agrarian future, hope for more locally sourced foods, renewable fuels and fibers. Hope for health care products that do not pollute the environment and will lessen our use and impact of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and petroleum products.”
The Legal Status of Hemp in the U.S. & Appalachia
Producing and cultivating industrial hemp has been nearly impossible in the United States for roughly 80 years, when the U.S. Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 placed an extremely high tax on industrial hemp, making it unprofitable. Though that law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, Congress responded in 1970 with passage of the Controlled Substances Act. It listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance — meaning that it is considered among the most harmful of drugs. At the time, industrial hemp was not distinguished from marijuana.
That changed two years ago, when President Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014, which allows universities and state agriculture departments to cultivate industrial hemp for limited purposes. Emboldened by this evolution, several states in Appalachia have loosened their own laws and are now looking to industrial hemp as a way to promote economic diversification and environmental preservation, especially in the rich earth that nurtures the farmlands of the region.
Virginia recently enacted legislation allowing farmers to grow the plant. West Virginia law allows the cultivation of industrial hemp with up to one percent THC, issues licenses to growers and even provides legal protection against prosecution under marijuana criminal codes. Maryland law permits a person to “plant, grow, harvest, possess, process, sell and buy industrial hemp.”
In Kentucky, a five-year research and licensing program is overseen by the University of Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station. Established in early 2014, there are five projects across the state, including one project to determine whether industrial hemp could be used to remediate tainted soil.
In North Carolina, a law took effect in October 2015 that recognizes the potential importance of industrial hemp and established a commission to create and regulate an industrial hemp program. It also established licensure and reporting procedures and distinguishes hemp from marijuana. Yet the commission has not been funded by the General Assembly.
In Tennessee, however, applications for the 2016 growing season have been accepted by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, though the application period has ended. The law there, passed in 2014, is similar to the one in North Carolina in that it distinguishes industrial hemp from marijuana and established oversight through the Department of Agriculture.
In summary, no state in Appalachia allows the production and cultivation of industrial hemp without some sort of governmental oversight and control, but acceptance of the crop is growing.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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West Virginia chapter of Catholic Committee of Appalachia calls coal mining CEO’s trial ‘emblematic of the larger systemic disregard for human life and dignity in Appalachia’
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – On April 5, 2010, just as miners were changing shifts in mid-afternoon at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., an explosion roared through the mine. Instantly, the 29 miners working in the mine for Massey Energy were dead, families were devastated and communities of southern West Virginia were forever changed.
Six years and a day after that avoidable tragedy, the misery continued for families of the dead miners, as they watched former Massey CEO Don Blankenship receive only one year in prison and a $250,000 fine. However, it was the maximum penalty that United States District Judge Irene Berger could impose. In December 2015, after a two-month trial, a jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements.
The Blankenship trial and sentencing accentuates this disregard for human beings. The loss of life and justice for miners and their families call us to greater responsibility for one another, and we call for this responsibility to be reflected concretely in law.” – WV CCA Statement
Consequently, the trial’s outcome – both verdict and sentencing – compelled the West Virginia chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachian (WVCCA) to release a statement saying they are “outraged.”
In the statement, the WVCCA said it, “ … commends the judgment that Blankenship willfully put his employees in danger, a danger that cost twenty-nine miners their lives at Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5, 2010. Still, like many other West Virginians, we are outraged that conspiracy to violate mine safety regulations is categorized merely as a misdemeanor.”
The WVCCA pointed out, “Had he been found guilty of the charges of which he was acquitted – lying to the federal security regulators and lying to his investors – Blankenship would have received a sentence of up to 25 years.” The WVCCA continued, “It is startling that, in our justice system, lying to those who have power in our society is a felony, while taking tragic risks with human life is a misdemeanor. The Blankenship case is another example of low sentences for those who take risks with public safety, a disturbing trend in our state seen also in the lenient sentencing of Freedom Industries executives responsible for the 2014 chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia.”
The WVCCA noted that West Virginia’s bishop, Michael J. Bransfield, stresses “the temptation toward ‘maximization of profit’ can lead to a disregard for human beings and their needs and lead to ‘a new kind of powerlessness” (Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, “On My Holy Mountain: Mine Safety in West Virginia,” p. 4).
Indeed, in May 2011, a report affirming that conclusion was released by the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) that was convened by former Governor (and now U.S. Senator) Joe Manchin. Among the panel’s findings were:
- The disaster was preventable because basic safety systems failed and/or were disregarded;
- These failure of safety systems was caused by a corporate culture by mine operator Massey Energy that put profits before safety;
- Massey Energy was able to operate with such a corporate culture because its dominant influence in the West Virginia coalfields allowed it to exert inordinate influence on West Virginia political officials responsible for ensuring mine safety; and,
- Those with regulatory oversight at both the state and federal levels failed in their roles as watchdogs.
At the time of the tragedy, the mine was owned and operated by Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. According to the GIIP report, “The explosion was the result of failures of basic safety procedures identified and codified to protect the lives of miners. The company’s ventilation system did not adequately ventilate the mines. As a result, explosive gases were allowed to build up. The company failed to meet federal and state safe principal standards for the application of rock dust. Therefore, coal dust provided the fuel that allowed the explosion to propagate through the mine. Third, water sprays on equipment were not properly maintained and failed to function as they should have. As a result, a small ignition could not be quickly extinguished” (p. 4). In short, Massey’s safety systems failed and both federal and state inspectors “…did not provide adequate and proper oversight” (p. 4).
Massey’s operating principles included political influence peddling without regard for campaign finance laws. “What is factual and well documented is that Massey Energy Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship had a long history of wielding or attempting to wield influence in the state’s seats of government” (p. 85). And, state inspectors knew that UBB was troublesome. Even though the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Safety and Training is notoriously understaffed, inspectors considered conditions at UBB so perilous that inspectors were on site at the mine for about 85 days in the year preceding the disaster, and had issued 330 violations totaling nearly $155,000 in penalties.
Inspectors can only do so much, though, asserted the panel. “The state’s failure at Upper Big Branch does not stop with safety issues inside the mine. The inability to protect the lives of miners is also a political failure – a failure by the state’s government to nurture and support strict safety standards for coal miners. If miners’ lives are to be safeguarded, the cozy relationship between high-ranking government officials and the coal industry must change, as must the relationship between the enforcement agency and the industry it regulates” (p. 89).
It added, “…Massey is equally well known for causing incalculable damage to mountains, streams, and air in the coalfields; creating health risks for coalfield residents by polluting streams, injecting slurry into the ground and failing to control coal waste dams and dust emissions from processing plants; using vast amounts of money to influence the political system; and, battling government regulation regarding safety in the coal mines and environmental safeguards for communities” (p. 92). Indeed, for the first decade of this century, Massey had the distinction of having the worst mine safety record in the United States. The 29 killed at UBB brought the company’s total deaths to 54 for the decade.
Even at the time of the disaster, Massey employees seemed to delay in their response. Though the explosion occurred just after 3 p.m., the first call for an ambulance was not made until nearly 4:30. Initially, the mine dispatcher called company officials, who in turn activated their own rescue teams and notified state and federal officials. It was not until the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 13 that all of the miners’ bodies had been recovered.
Blaming it on God
Nobody speaks to the corporate culture which allowed this preventable disaster better than Blankenship. Holding to the theory put forth by Massey that high levels of methane or natural gas just suddenly burst in through the mine’s floor (despite evidence to the contrary), he coldly said to the National Press Club on July 22, 2010 – less than three months following the accident – “The politicians will tell you we’re going to do something so this never happens again. You won’t hear me say that. Because I believe that the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do. Whether you get earthquakes underground, whether you get broken floors, whether you get gas inundations, whether you get roof falls, oftentimes they are unavoidable, just as other accidents in society” (p. 70). Yet, 94 years previously, Coal Age magazine asserted, “The next time you are about to say, ‘Accidents will happen,’ stop and think first; then you won’t say it. Only weaklings and incompetents evade responsibilities in this age of industrial safety and efficiency” (p. 74).
Or, as the WVCCA said, “ … as we noted in our recent pastoral letter, ‘Coal industry villains come and go, but the attitude which places profit above safety is deeply embedded in the coal economy.’”
The WVCCA concluded, “The Blankenship trial and sentencing accentuates this disregard for human beings. The loss of life and justice for miners and their families call us to greater responsibility for one another, and we call for this responsibility to be reflected concretely in law. We, again, join our bishop in saying ‘The Church has an obligation to continue to remain vigilant in these areas to ensure that justice is served and human dignity is protected. This is an essential part of proclaiming the Gospel of Life’” (Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, “On My Holy Mountain: Mine Safety in West Virginia,” p. 5).
The day after his sentencing, Blankenship filed a notice of appeal of his case to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Of course, the dead miners and their families have nowhere that they can file a notice of appeal to reverse the course their lives took six years ago. But that is justice in Appalachia.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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